Hello fellow travellers! Alexx here from Finding Alexx. I’m on a year-long solo adventure to a new country every week for a year, with my route based entirely off the cheapest flight each Tuesday. Yep, it’s as hectic as it sounds! This insane adventure took me to Sofia, a gorgeous hidden gem in the Balkans and the capital city of Bulgaria. Here’s all you need to know if you’re considering a trip to Sofia, from what to do, where to sleep to how to get around and more.
Where to stay in Sofia
Let’s kick this off with some good news… Sofia is the ideal spot if you’re on a budget! There are plenty of cheap hostels in Sofia with dorm beds for less than $13 a night, or you can get a budget-friendly hotel room from about $32 a night.
Normally I’m a big advocate for accommodation with full kitchen facilities so you can save money on food, but food in Sofia is so cheap (and good!) that there’s honestly no need to cook your own food.
How to get around Sofia
If you’re staying in the city centre and you don’t mind getting your steps up, you’ll probably be able to see the city pretty easily by foot. A lot of the main sights are within walking distance, and wandering aimlessly around the city was how I found loads of my top food recommendations!
If you prefer to get somewhere quicker (and maybe drier), there are trams, buses and the metro. A single ride is 1.60BGN (about 90 cents) or a day pass with unlimited travel is 4BGN (about $2).
There’s no Uber in Sofia, but there is a great local taxi app that does the same thing, called TaxiMe. You can sign up with your UK number, add in your credit card and hail a ride through the app just like you would anywhere else.
To get to and from the airport easily and relatively cheaply, I’d recommend getting a taxi from the airport taxi stand. Only one company is authorised to provide taxi services at the airport and they’ve got standard fare rates, so follow the signs to the official taxi area and you’ll be looked after. To get into the city centre you should pay about 15-20BGN ($8-$12).
On a super tight budget? You can get the metro from Terminal 2 at the airport to Serdika station for 1.60BGN (cash only so you’ll need to use an ATM at the airport), then transfer to a bus, tram or other metro to get closer to your hotel.
How much to budget for Sofia
Yay for cheap destinations! Much like my week in Warsaw, Sofia was a real treat for my wallet.
If you’re looking for a challenge, Sofia is actually possible to experience from only $15-$20 per day. This would cover cheap hostel accommodation ($9-$13) and supermarket or bakery food (up to $7). You can see loads of the beautiful buildings for free, and with a bit of Googling you could self-guide a city tour to learn about the city’s communist history.
To add in a nice local meal ($6-$10), a drink ($3) and the donation for a free walking tour ($6), I’d recommend budgeting around $40 a day.
You can get freshly baked goodies from local bakeries for less than 1BGN (about 65 cents), decent sandwiches or salads for lunch from 4-8BGN ($1.95-$4.50) or slightly fancier sit-down dinners from 12-20BGN ($6.50-$12). A local beer will cost anything from 2BGN to 6BGN depending on where you are ($1.30-$4).
The best things to do in Sofia
Despite it not being as well-known as other Eastern European hot spots like Prague and Budapest, the city has a lot going for it and there’s endless things to do in Sofia no matter what you’re into.
Gain some insight into Bulgaria’s rocky past, shop for second-hand goodies at flea markets, eat your heart out at some of my favourite cafés from all my travels, or escape the urban jungle and head out to explore another nearby city. Here’s five of the best things to do on your Sofia trip.
1. Learn about communist history
Bulgaria’s political past is something that’s still woven throughout the city, with huge headquarters, architecture, museums and statues representing the communist era from 1946 to 1989.
Whether you’re a total newbie to communist history or all clued up and want to see how if affected Bulgaria specifically, there’s a couple of places and tours to add to your Sofia communism class.
Coming from New Zealand, where communism’s never touched anywhere near our little corner of the world and where I opted for maths and science classes over history, geography and politics (nerd, I know), my knowledge of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes was limited.
First up is the Free Sofia walking tour, which runs three or four times a day (depending on the season) and is tip-based. Your local tour guide will take you around 20 of Sofia’s must-see spots, and you’ll get a decent overview of the history and politics of the city, as well as a local’s tips on things to do, eat and see.
Free Sofia also has a daily communism tour for only $11, which gives you a three-hour in-depth walk through of the city’s communist landmarks as well as an insight into what Sofia was like to live in during those 43 years.
Want more? Consider visiting the National Historical Museum or the Museum of Socialist Art, which is home to the huge red star that sat on top of the communist party’s headquarters before being overthrown in the late 80’s.
2. See the city’s most beautiful religious buildings
While the dominant religion in Bulgaria by far is Bulgarian Orthodox (at about 60%), there are some simply stunning churches, mosques, cathedrals and monasteries in the capital city.
Start off with the most epic building in the city, and one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This seriously impressive Orthodox church was started in 1882 but not finished until 30 years later, and it’s one of the most iconic landmarks in Bulgaria’s capital city, with a 45m high gold-plated dome and interior made of onyx, marble and other ultra-fancy materials.
Other Orthodox churches that are worth a visit are St Nicholas Church (a Russian Orthodox church), the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church, and Sveta Nedelya Church, which has a dramatic history including a funeral bombing in 1925 by the Communist Party where over 500 of Bulgaria’s elite political figures were injured and 150 were killed.
After Eastern Orthodox, the next most common religion is Islam, with up to 15% of the population identifying as Muslim. Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for almost 500 years, from the late 1300s until the Russian Empire took on the Ottoman Empire in 1878, but after being liberated thanks to Russia’s victory and then declaring independence in 1908, many buildings from this era were repurposed or destroyed. The 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque is the only functioning mosque left in Sofia, and as such it’s a bustling hub for the city’s Muslim community.
Ancient history fans will want to make a stop at Sveti Georgi, a 4th-century Christian church built by the Romans in the ancient city of Serdica. It’s the oldest building in the city, and it’s home to some stunning frescoes dating back to the 10th century.
3. Devour all the cheap food
I’m a big proponent for cooking your own food while travelling to stick within a tight budget, and usually allow myself a bit of spending money each week for a meal or two out. Buttttt in Sofia, I ate out every single meal of the whole week. Yes, I said every single meal!
The local food scene is not only cheap, but it’s actually seriously impressive too. From bakeries where you can get four pastries or savouries for the equivalent of €1, to Instagrammable brunch spots with next level dishes, to traditional restaurants serving up home-style dishes, I would go back in a second literally just for the food.
There’s bound to be an eatery in Sofia perfect for whatever type of food tickles your fancy, but here are some of my favourites.
Bistro Pesto was my number one, and I’m not ashamed to say I had lunch there four days in a row! They’re a super cute corner restaurant close to the main shopping boulevard, and they serve Italian food all day and night. Their panini menu is amazing; authentic Italian ingredients and a Bulgarian price tag. Win win!
If you’re looking for a funky food photo (no judgement here), check out the brunch menu at Rainbow Factory or Boho. I didn’t make it to Rainbow Factory but my hostel mates raved about it, and I can personally vouch for the Oreo pancake stack at Boho. Mmmmhmmmm.
And for a reasonably-priced but delicious sit-down dinner, be sure to visit the legends at Shtastlivetsa, a chain restaurant with a HUGE menu of home-cooked meals. Prices are understandably a bit higher than the local street food stalls, but the service is fantastic, the meals are massive and there are plenty of hearty Bulgarian dishes to choose from.
4. Head into the mountains
Sofia’s landscape is rare in terms of European capital cities, because there’s a mountain range so close to the city centre. The bottom of Vitosha Mountain is only 10kms or so from the city, and it’s easily reachable by taxi, public transport, or walking if you want to make a day of it.
In summer Vitosha is a popular hiking destination, where city-dwellers escape to on weekends to get some fresh air. The highest peak is 2290m but there’s also hikes around the bottom half of the mountain to different rivers and waterfalls.
During winter, the mountain is a ski resort, perfect for any snow bunnies on a budget. Although it is significantly less-developed than other European ski destinations like Switzerland and France, your day pass and rental will be much cheaper and your money will go way further.
As well as being an adrenaline activity hot spot, Vitosha is home to another Sofia must-see and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Boyana Church. Boyana is an Orthodox church from the 11th century and is famous for the many frescoes it houses, particularly a collection from way back in 1259.
5. Take a day trip
There’s some pretty incredible places to see and experience outside of Sofia itself, so if you’ve got the time, I’d recommend trying to squeeze in a day trip or two!
My top pick for a day trip from Sofia is Plovdiv, another Bulgarian city and one of the two 2019 European Capitals of Culture. Plovdiv is a couple of hours away from Sofia by bus, and tickets cost about £6 each way. Once you’re in the city I’d recommend jumping on a free walking tour, run by the same organisation who run the Sofia tour. They’ve got a city tour daily year-round as well as a free graffiti tour daily from October to April. And if you want to explore yourself, don’t miss the unique coloured houses that line the streets in the old town, it’s different to every other European old town I’ve seen!
Fancy a work out? There’s no better place in Bulgaria to get moving than in the Seven Rila Lakes area. Seven Rila Lakes is, you guessed it, home to seven glacial lakes in the Rila mountain range, and all are between 2100m and 2500m of altitude. It is possible but it’s tough to get there on public transport so it’s best to hire a car and drive (1.5-2 hours), or to book an organised day tour or shuttle bus. Bonus tip: Don’t miss Rila Monastery, a 10th-century Eastern Orthodox monastery and the largest in the country. Well worth a visit!
And there you have it, a full travel guide for Sofia and beyond for your Bulgarian adventure! Book your flight to Sofia now with STA Travel. If you want to follow more of my adventures you can find me on Instagram.